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Plans to Repeal the Clean Water Act

Scott Slesinger

Posted June 30, 2011 in Curbing Pollution, The Media and the Environment, U.S. Law and Policy

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As a young EPA staffer, I worked with the congressional committee staffs on what is properly entitled the “Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1977 [Commonly Referred to as the Clean Water Act].”  At the first Conference between the House and the Senate, there was a 45 minute debate on what the title would be.  The House wanted the Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1977; the Senate wanted Clean Water Act.  The House argued the pollution needed to be controlled under federal standards; the Senate wanted to be more goal-oriented and aim for clean water.  I turned to the person sitting next to me when the title was finally agreed to and said “if they debate 45 minutes on the title, this bill is dead.” 

I was wrong.  There was a strong bipartisan, bicameral support for protecting our waters. Americans then, and now, want government to protect them from threats that we, as individuals, are helpless to defend ourselves --contaminated water, dirty air, tainted food, nuclear attacks.  It was clear that earlier laws, before the original water act of 1972, that flowing waters ignored state lines and that allowing states to set standards would continue a “race to the bottom” or transferring problems to neighboring states.   Last week, without a hearing, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, took Federal out of the Federal Water Pollution Control Act and went back 40 years to essentially make clean water a state option.  The bill unbelievably was rushed through with no hearings apparently because the two sponsors, the Committee Chair, John Mica and the Ranking Democrat, Nick Rahall, were too embarrassed to put light on their radical proposal.  Several of my colleagues have already blogged on the bill here and here and here. It is likely, without a record, many of the members, particularly the 90+ new members, who take clean water as a given don’t appreciate the critical federal role.

In 1994, I worked for this House Committee and many members wanted major changes in the Act. After a series of hearings, the members realized that the risk of change to satisfy a few special interests were just too controversial and dangerous.  Hearings, if done to educate, can be useful tools.  Ignoring the normal procedure to fast track special interest legislation, is almost always a mistake.

There have been multiple attacks on environment during this Congress; polluters have lobbied Congress to undo virtually every regulation that the basic environmental laws requires.  These companies, or trade association try to develop a short-term advantage over their competitors who have invested in controlling pollution.  Apparently lobbyists are cheaper than the price of controlling pollution.  Meanwhile, the health of every American but particularly those who are old, young or have compromised immune systems are put at risk.

But H.R. 2018 is the first serious attempt to essentially repeal one of the basic environmental laws, the Clean Water Act.  The bill virtually ends the federal backstop on what is already a state dominated clean water program; creating a perfect system for a new race to the bottom.  The authors, John Mica of Florida and Nick Rahall of West Virginia are upset with particular rules that EPA promulgated or rulings made under the present Act that they don’t like – rules that protect Florida’s waters from excess runoff pollution or restrictions on coal companies that want to blow up mountains to find some coal without having to hire miners to look underground.

As we head to the beach for the holidays, looking over the ocean, river or lakes, fishing or just drinking water or eating catfish or salmon, don’t forget your Congress will be voting to jeopardize our water resources to help some polluters make an extra buck.  Neither party should be part of this travesty. 

You can let your Representatives know how you feel about this by clicking on this link.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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